It can be hard to see racism if you’re whiteI work very hard. My parents worked hard. Everything I have is because we all worked for it, right?
By: Naomi Yaeger, Duluth Budgeteer News
I work very hard. My parents worked hard. Everything I have is because we all worked for it, right?
I was raised to believe that. And I do believe it. But about six years ago I saw a video that opened my eyes to the possibility there may be other ingredients to success.
It was after worship services at First United Methodist Church one Sunday. A bunch of us — all white, educated, and, I daresay, comfortable — watched a video. In it, people of all races stood in a line in the middle of a room. The leader of the group asked several questions, telling people to respond by moving forward or stepping back. She said step back if you had ever been followed around a store. Step forward if you expect to inherit at least a little money when your parents die. Step back if you’ve ever been denied housing because of your race. Step back if you worried that your hairstyle was too “ethnic” for an employer or if you’ve ever been stopped for driving your car in the wrong neighborhood.
As I watched the video, I realized that even though I have worked hard most of my life, I’ve never had to put up with problems like that. I’ve felt accepted no matter where I went, and if I didn’t, it wasn’t because of my race.
I realized that even though my father had literally put blood, sweat and tears into farming land in southwestern Minnesota, that had he been Native American or African American his parents probably wouldn’t have even owned land in the first place. And my life would have been much different.
I’ve never really felt that I had special privileges. I thought I just had what was fair. Life hasn’t always been easy for me. I’ve had a brush of life in poverty and other negative things to knock me down. While I was living in poverty, I thought I’d never dig myself out of the hole, but I did. And the truth is, if I had been born African American or Native American and worked just as hard as I have worked, I may not have had the same opportunities to do so. This is white privilege.
On Tuesday, I attended a press conference in the Mayor’s Reception Room at Duluth City Hall for the announcement of the Unfair Campaign. Some 15 organizations have come together to show that it’s hard to see racism when you are white and that people of color in Duluth experience incidents of racism every day.
Mayor Don Ness likened racism in Duluth to a windy day.
“On a windy day in January, if you’re walking downtown and if the wind is at your back, it propels you along,” he said. “It’s still cold out, but it’s a little easier to walk. And yet if you turn around, it’s still the same day but the wind is in your face. It’s all you can think about.”
Carl Crawford, Intercultural Center coordinator at Lake Superior College, looked out into the audience and said that many of the attendees were his friends. His frankness was that of a good friend who needs to tell you something difficult but truthful.
“This conversation is long overdue. Long overdue,” he said, going into how many African Americans feel when they go shopping in Duluth.
“We know what we feel when we come into certain places. It’s here. We live it, we breathe it, we feel it.
“I’ve been black all my life and I’m very proud of that,” he continued. “But part of that you need to understand is that I can’t change my skin color like my coat and walk back into your store and hope that I’m going to be treated differently when I’ve already had a negative experience.”
He asked that people use the tools of the Unfair Campaign and take the talk out of the classroom and into your kitchen. And out of the kitchen and into the workplace; out of the workforce and into the church.
I took my talk to the kitchen to my husband. It was difficult. We talked about the things we were raised to believe, not just by our parents, but by osmosis by just living as whites. Some of it is ugly.
My husband told me about some of the feelings that go through his mind even though he knows they are wrong. And I had to admit to myself that while driving at night and coming to a stop sign and seeing black men standing at the corner, I’ve clicked the power switch to lock the doors. Was I racist? Was I just being careful? Would I have done it if the men had been white? These are questions we need to ask ourselves and our friends.
Over the next few months, you will be seeing billboards and posters in Duluth to help you ask those questions. Use that awareness to talk to your friends and family. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s something we all must do so if we are to enjoy our beautiful city on the lake — equally.
Naomi Yaeger is editor of the Budgeteer News. Learn more by attending events including Cracking the Shell of Whiteness at Peace Church, 1111 N. 11th Ave. E., Tuesdays from Feb. 7 through March 6 from 6:15 to 8:45 p.m. Also see the Budgeteer calendar for more events and log onto http://unfaircampaign.org.
What individuals can do to further their understanding of white privilege and structural racism
The following is from the www.Unfaircampaign.org website:
“Doing the work” is about understanding structural racism and
analyzing the systems we work and live in to look for the characteristic
of structural racism. It also entails developing the willingness to
continuously evaluate our own actions and seeing that they align with our intents, e.g.: “I don’t intend to take advantage of my white privilege, but I don’t address it or attempt to change it when I identify it.”
It also means dedicating ourselves to being in authentic relationships with people of different races and ethnicities.
The following are a few things to keep in mind in doing our personal work:
our intent (walking the walk);
consistently act to address racial inequities